Monday, 21 July 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 6 Ha! Ha! Among the trumpets (1)

Among the terms for day-to-day use, none spoke more clear than Imbiss Stube. We noticed it first as we made our way the next morning from the Westpark to the eastern outskirts of Aachen and the road to Cologne: a menu beside the door of a shop showed that Imbiss Stube painted above meant snack bar. We went in and ordered breakfast with a flowing morning ease - foreign languages always tripping off the tongue more readily in the morning than later in the day - we were inordinately proud of: Zwei Kaffee, bitte, und zwei Brötchen mit Eier (two coffees, please, and two bread rolls with eggs). Brötchen mit Eier turned out to be two fried eggs accompanied by a bread roll with butter. A perfectly good breakfast, heaped with hidden advantages: it was the cheapest on the menu, we would never have to bother with anything else, and fluency in ordering bolstered our linguistic self-confidence. We even became sensitive to those parts of Germany where zwei becomes zwo (like our 'two') and where Brötchen becomes Semmel, as it did later on in Bavaria and Austria.

We talked about the previous evening. The Aachen/Stuttgart confusion apart, we'd had a good time. Max and Freddy and their pals - technical college students, apparently, undertaking a vacation project in Aachen university - had been lively company, German beer, nothing like English bitter, just got better and better with every mouthful and we'd ended the evening well lit up but not so uncomfortable that we were obliged to stagger round the corner and bring it all up again.

But those songs intrigued me. I couldn't fathom what post-war cultural influences had led to a group of intelligent young men amusing themselves by singing surely old-fashioned marching songs in the pub. I couldn't imagine myself and George and half a dozen of our recent sixth-form pals singing Goodbye, Dolly Gray (from the Boer War) or Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag (from WWI) with words regular or rude round our pints of Fremlins' best bitter at the Coopers' Arms in St Margaret's Street in Rochester. For one thing singing in pubs wasn't a common practice, despite some English pubs at the time putting up notices saying NO SINGING (together with NO SPITTING and NO PASSING OF BETTING SLIPS although I have to say my evidence for this comes from dimly remembered Giles cartoons of the period in The Daily Express.)

- We could do with a few signs saying NO AIRING OF AESTHETIC THEORIES, George said.
- What! But I haven't said a word!
- You will, Chris, you will.

So be it. In 1795, the year of Adelaïde and three years after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music for the annual masked charity ball in aid of pensioners of the Viennese Society of Painters and Sculptors. Dance music then consisted of minuets (in slow three-time, partner held formally by the finger-tips), contredanses (figured movements in more lively two-time, something like Scottish country dances, indeed sometimes called écossaises), and Deutsche (fast whirling dance in three-time, partner held close round the waist, precursor of the Viennese waltz, sometimes called Ländler).

- I remember a balmy night a couple of weeks ago, really indigo and velvet, at Blossom End - that was the name of Adèle's hosts' house - when we danced Viennese waltzes on their patio. Someone produced a record of Strauss waltzes, played by Mantovani and his orchestra.
- Mantovani? Jesus. How low can you get?
- I know. I tell you this as a trusted friend, confident that it will go no further. But it was all we had. The alternative was Mrs Mills or Winifred Atwell. Or Russ Conway. They had really peculiar musical tastes, Adèle's hosts. When it came to ballroom dances, we both had unusual experiences: when I was 11 or 12, at an all boys' school, I - perhaps because I'm not the tallest bloke you've ever seen - and half the rest of us were made honorary girls, so I learnt to waltz backwards. Adèle was always tall for her age, so they made her an honorary boy in the dance class. So we both did it the wrong way round. It didn't make any difference to the way we held each other, though. I could never fathom what she had on underneath, something ridged and rigid. Maybe it was a suspender belt.
- Oh, get on with Beethoven. We could do with a sign saying NO BLOODY MAUNDERING ON ABOUT FLAMING ADÈLE.
- Not a very romantic soul, are you? You don't seem to realise that these experiences may colour an entire lifetime?
- Suspender belts are not romantic. They're horrible bloody things.

Anyway, it says much for Beethoven's reputation - he was 25, although as we've seen it's very likely he thought he was 23 - as a composer that he was given this commission. He'd written very little orchestral music up till then, just his earliest piano concerto, the one we call No.2, and some accompaniments for choral works. However he scored these dances, 12 Minuets and 12 Deutsche (i.e. German dances) for a basic orchestral line-up, strings, flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani. They're perfectly delicious. Somebody called them the small change of Beethoven's genius. People must have adored them, to listen to and to dance to. Certainly they became very popular. You can always tell how popular music like this became from the arrangements made of it for other instruments and ensembles: Beethoven made his own arrangements, to avoid the pirating endemic in the absence of efficient copyright laws, for piano solo and for two violins and double bass.

So these dances can be taken to be his first solely orchestral work. But here's a curious thing: the trumpet parts are extraordinarily simple, almost as though he expected complete beginners to play them. [I've given the 1st Trumpet part above. It's silent (tacet) for most of the time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the chief art in trumpet playing in Beethoven's time was counting rests.] In his early days in Vienna Beethoven, as a virtuoso himself, mixed with other virtuosi: Schuppanzigh the violinist, Dragonetti the bass player, Anton Reicha the flautist, Punto the hornist, Ramm the oboist. No trumpet virtuoso, however. No trumpeter ever made his name playing Beethoven's trumpet parts, nor Mozart's, nor Haydn's. Beethoven only uses his trumpets to fill in harmony, to provide a thicker orchestral texture, and to point energetic rhythms, usually of a military cast. In the course of 30 years of mature orchestral composition he took other instruments to the limit and beyond of their known capabilities. His own piano music reaches previously unguessed-at technical heights. His last quartets far transcend previously known string-playing possibilities. His horn writing explores new limits, even his drum parts lead where no timpanist had gone before. But throughout those 30 years his writing for trumpet resisted any development. The final movement of the 9th symphony makes hardly more demands of the trumpets than the 12 Deutsche.

And yet fifty years before trumpet-playing involved mastery of the most florid and intricate melodic lines, generally high up in that part of the trumpet register called clarino. Purcell, Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and their contemporaries made heavy demands of their trumpeters. The unique compass of magnificence achieved by Baroque trumpet-and-drum passages, the equivalent in musical terms of the architecture of Versailles, say, was a sonority unknown to Beethoven. Within two generations of its heyday the art of clarino playing had died out.

We left Aachen behind us. Several lifts, now long overtaken by oblivion, took us across an unsightly and uninteresting plain towards Cologne. Consideration of the death of clarino playing and its implications for the future would have to wait.

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